The Trip To Bountiful
Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Through Nov. 3
If ever there were a work defined by its poignancy, it would be Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, the story of an elderly woman’s efforts to live out her last days at her beloved childhood home. Set in Texas in the 1950s, it’s one of those leisurely paced plays that pays homage to nostalgia and runs the risk of being ickily sentimental.
But that pitfall is dodged in the current, splendid production at the Ahmanson. Directed by Michael Wilson, it’s propelled by veteran artist Cicely Tyson as the runaway, Mrs. Carrie Watts, with Blair Underwood as her troubled son Ludie and a volcanic Vanessa Williams as her spiteful and shallow daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae.
One could argue that Act 1 belongs to Williams, all spitfire and crackling ice when we first see her sashaying around the family’s cluttered tenement apartment, ordering her husband about, hunting for her mother-in-law’s pension checks – which the older woman has been stashing away – and demanding fealty in the form of unconditional acceptance of her personal demands and complaints, which she vents vociferously and often.
Trying her best to acquiesce, Mrs. Watts meanwhile is plotting her trip to Bountiful, the coastal hamlet where she grew up and the antithesis to the close-quartered stultifying city of Houston where she seems doomed to end her days.
In Act 2, she makes her getaway, and from that point on the spotlight belong to Tyson, who delivers a memorable and distinguished performance.
Whereas a lesser actor might have settled into curmudgeonly caricature, Tyson brings the entirety of her character’s years to the stage – so that we see not merely a woman of advanced years but all the younger incarnations of that woman that have gone before. (Foote, writing in the 1950s, described Mrs. Watts as 60; Tyson- and her Carrie – are some two decades plus older.)
And it’s not just the yearning to go home again that we can identify with and share, or the longing for a simpler, better life. It’s also Carrie’s honesty – her acknowledgment of mistakes, which she freely confides to the 19-year-old fellow traveler she meets on the bus (a lovely Jurnee Smollett-Bell), as well as her salty common sense and determination to carry through with her plans, even if they fail.
The production’s notable weakness is director Wilson’s presentational staging in Act 3, where too much distance is placed between mother and son in a scene whose intimate quality calls for proximity. The blocking of the action also undercuts Underwood’s most moving moments through no fault of the performer. He still manages to convey the frustration and quiet sorrow Ludie shares with his mother.
Finally, while Devon Abner is a bit stiff as the sheriff tasked with tracking Carrie down, the supporting ensemble otherwise blends in beautifully. Their quiet comings and goings add flavor and authenticity. And designer Jeff Cowie’s wonderful sets prove integral to the story-telling, especially his towering representation of urban oppressiveness in Act I, and his scenic reflection on the starry-skied hopefulness of Carrie’s journey in the act that follows.
Ahmanson Theatre, 601 W Temple St. downtown; Tues.-Sun. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Nov. 2. (213) 972-4400, http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/Trip-to-Bountiful-The/